Religion, Politics and the University

Are universities living up to their historic mission in how they engage diversity issues?

January 25, 2018

This semester I am a visiting professor at Washington University in St. Louis, teaching a course with my friend John Inazu (check out his great book, Confident Pluralism) on religion, diversity and the university.

This week we assigned readings from two great Roman Catholic political philosophers -- Alasdair MacIntyre and John Courtney Murray -- who wrote about the identity/purpose of universities. I’ve found their views useful in thinking through how universities ought to engage diversity and identity issues.

John Courtney Murray defines civilization as conversation, “living together and talking together.”

Barbarism, he says, “is the lack of reasonable conversation according to reasonable laws.”

Both Murray and MacIntyre highlight that, of all the institutions in a society, we charge universities to model, and teach, how to conduct such conversations. Murray characterizes universities as spaces where creeds can be at war intelligibly.

MacIntyre has this to say: 

“universities are places where conceptions of and standards of rational justification are elaborated, put to work in the detailed practices of enquiry, and themselves rationally evaluated, so that only from the university can the wider society learn how to conduct its own debates, practical or theoretical, in a rationally defensible way.”

MacIntyre elaborates on the challenge that leaders of a university community face in creating such a setting. They have to 

“order the ongoing conflicts, to provide and sustain institutionalized means for their expression, to negotiate the modes of encounter between opponents, to ensure that rival voices were not illegitimately suppressed, to sustain the university – not as an arena of neutral objectivity, as in the liberal university, since each of the contending standpoints would be advancing its own partisan account of the nature and function of objectivity – but as an arena of conflict in which the most fundamental type of moral and theological disagreement was accorded recognition.” 

His articulation of the purpose – or core identity – of the university is as follows:

“The university (is) a place of constrained disagreement, of imposed participation in conflict, in which a central responsibility of higher education would be to initiate students into conflict.”  

In sum: A healthy diverse democracy is characterized by how citizens engage each other in dialogue. Universities are centrally important institutions in a diverse democracy because they model healthy discourse and prepare graduates to lead it in the broader society.

Which leads to a set of interesting questions about how universities should engage contemporary identity and diversity issues.

Are there conflicts in American life that universities should not initiate students into? Immigration? Abortion?

By the above question, I do not mean to suggest that there are subjects universities are avoiding, I mean to query whether there are conflicts they are avoiding. Which is to say, are matters that are conflicts in American life -– like immigration and abortion -- presented as settled in university environments? There is only right and wrong, only oppressor and oppressed.   

In the cases where certain viewpoints are presented in two-dimensional form, if at all, is this a violation of the mission/purpose/identity of the university?


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